Richard Epstein taught at the University of Chicago for 38 years before retiring,* then promptly came out of retirement to take a chair at NYU Law, while being a Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover institute. He seems like a smart guy, and his name gets thrown around as being a legitimate voice in support of something whenever it suits the thrower.
The Hoover Institution’s Richard Epstein also waves a flag of caution regarding the COVID-19 dashboards that many news networks and online sites now prominently feature. Epstein’s analysis shows that COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. and worldwide will be dramatically fewer than many have predicted — possibly even fewer than the Hong Kong flu of 1968, the swine flu pandemic of 2009-2010 or seasonal influenza, which can claim hundreds of lives a day.
And Epstein wasn’t the only “smart” person to raise doubts.
In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Nobel laureate and Stanford biophysicist Michael Levitt throws a hope-inducing bucket of cold water on the nonstop alarmism being repeated by some in the media and in public office.
That is the point of another Stanford professor of medicine and epidemiology, John Ioannidis. In an article for Stat, Ioannidis breaks down why our governments are making decisions without reliable data or based upon flawed models.
This isn’t “amplified” here because I share their views or their doubts. I’m neither as smart nor qualified to have an opinion on medical and epidemiological models at others. Then again, Epstein is a law prof, so maybe he isn’t qualified either, although that didn’t stop him.
Rather, I bring this up because of the outrage over Epstein’s (and the others) contention that the majority view is wrong. How dare he challenge wiser people than himself? How dare he be wrong? This is where psychologist Pamela Paresky’s post at ArcDigita came into play.
By now, commentators have noted the similarities between our coronavirus crisis and the classic “trolley problem,” first formulated by the late philosopher Philippa Foot.
Imagine there’s a runaway trolley heading straight for five people who will be killed. You’re standing next to a lever. If you pull it, the trolley will switch to a different track where only one person will be killed.
Most people say the moral choice is to spare the five and sacrifice the one. This may be akin to how many conceive of extreme measures to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus: The right thing to do is to issue and enforce stay-at-home orders and shutter businesses for as long as it takes to spare the maximum number of people at greatest risk from the virus.
This is about as far as most people get, it being sufficient to confirm their views. It has the imprimatur of morality as enforced by philosophers and allows us to take comfort in knowing we’re doing the right thing, the moral thing. Yay us. But Paresky’s not done yet.
For many of those who are certain that this is the only moral solution, the choice seems crystal clear. It appears to be a tradeoff between lives and money — that is, between a sacred value and a secular interest. This is what social scientist Philip Tetlock calls a “taboo tradeoff.”
When a tradeoff is taboo, there is no discussion or debate possible. Choosing the sacred value is entirely uncontroversial. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put it, “I’m not willing to put a price on a human life,” and “we’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable.”
Epstein’s challenge to the common wisdom wasn’t merely wrong, but immoral, as no moral person would violate the taboo of trading human life for filthy lucre. Did we learn nothing from the trolley problem? Hold yer horses, Paresky notes.
Let me propose another version: To stop the trolley, you must push the large man off the bridge [and onto the tracks below]. But no one is entirely certain whether that will be enough. You might need to force another person off. And perhaps another. There’s no way to know in advance exactly how many people must be pushed onto the track in order to stop the trolley from killing the five people in the trolley’s path. Perhaps just one. But it could turn out that as many people must be sacrificed as will be saved.
She goes on to remind us that those questioning the “common wisdom” aren’t necessarily evil, but may be just as decent and moral as those who toe the line.
Returning to our current crisis, using this lens, skeptics aren’t the cold-hearted monsters they’re made out to be. It’s not that they care more about money than your grandmother’s life. Instead, they are thinking about the people who will suffer from unemployment, poverty, loneliness, and despair. And they are imagining some point in the future when an unknown number could die from increases in child and domestic abuse, addiction and overdose, unmet medical needs, suicide, and so on.
The argument against credible people who violate the taboo is that they mislead people by violating the inherent trust in their credentials, their ascribed credibility, and give comfort to the enemy by endorsing wrongthink. And, indeed, their thoughts may well be wrong, and their credibility may be stretched beyond the breaking point. Richard Epstein is a law professor, after all, not an epidemiologist (or any other discipline that might be directly relevant to his modeling criticisms).
But to not merely dispute his argument as being flawed, and his academic credibility based on his straying far outside his wheelhouse, but to damn him as a monster for not adhering to the common wisdom, is to stop at the most basic application of the trolley problem and never ask “what if” you have to throw as many people off the bridge as would be saved by stopping the trolley. The answer may be “no,” but if we vilify people for asking so that no one ever challenges common wisdom, we’ll never know.
*I’m informed that he didn’t retire from Chicago, but still teaches one quarter there.